How to Edit without Getting Overly Critical

It’s true – editing requires you to do what the entire world tells you not to do: JUDGE. “Get those judgy eyes away from me”, your friends will say, but then…..editors get paid to judge what works and what doesn’t. (Engineers and lawyers have this same problem.)

Word Devaluation

Our first problem is that the word “judge” is now universally merged into “criticism”, “evaluation”, and “analytical thinking”. When Jesus first came up with His well-known phrases about judging, He combined the word with the concept of hypocrisy. Really, He wasn’t saying anything like “don’t evaluate/don’t be critical of others’ choices”. He was simply saying that the same yardstick applies to all human beings; no one is special and exempt from rules that apply to us all.

If no one is supposed to judge, then any defendant in a lawsuit should feel free to tell Your Honor across the table that there’s no need to make any sort of beneficial decision in your favor. (See the logical issue?)

No Evaluation Means No Improvement

If you don’t assess whether or not something will work well – if you don’t judge the capabilities of any product or marketing plan – you won’t be in business for long.

The power of positive thinking can improve people’s thinking in many areas, but it really should not be applied to a job that requires many “no’s” before you get to a “yes”. The eternal YES does not work in editing. (“Should I add in some more exclamation marks here? YES!!!!!!”) Nor does it work in chemistry. (“Should I add more bicarbonate of soda to this vinegar? YES!!!!” – BOOM)

Only Criticism Means Discouragement

On the other hand, neither does the eternal “NO” work in every situation. As an editor, if you provide absolutely no encouragement to your clients on what they wrote well, they probably won’t stick with you for long. A little humor or praise, judiciously applied, can go a long way. If you’ve just left 10 comments explaining why your client’s genius action scene needs some heavy-duty revision, think about adding one comment on a section that really resonated.

How will the client know how to write well (or better) if you don’t provide positive feedback?

Resist the Urge to Over-Edit

Once you get into a groove of swapping, changing, moving….sometimes you hit a section where the writing is going well. And you get those itchy fingers, simply because it feels weird not to be changing anything. Resist the urge to change just for the sake of change. It wastes client time and your brain cells.

Instead, keep asking yourself these questions:

  • Is it necessary to make this change, really?
  • Does this improve the message?
  • Does this move the story along?
  • Will this change make the content more bland, i.e. sound like everyone else’s message, or strategically standardized for easier but more interesting reading?
  • Can I change something above or below to create the same impact?
  • Will this change really resonate with the audience, or will they think it’s too fancy/too childish?
  • Do the characters talk like they would in real life? (Note: John Grisham’s plots are somewhat realistic, but all of his characters sound the same, which doesn’t match realism.)
  • Do the words fit the audience? (If the targeted audience includes British PhD students in their 30’s and 40’s, but your illustrations are all culled from stories of 1960’s street life in Brazil, they probably won’t really ‘hear’ or resonate with your message.)

Feel free to pass on any tips. I’m still figuring out what works and what doesn’t!

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